Stress Affects on Your Overall
Health – Beyond the Biology of Stress
The basic purpose of the stress response is to enable the organism, you and me included, to deal with challenges.
In reality, however, it is more than what meets the mind.
By Rajgopal Nidamboor
Stress is an inevitable part of our life and existence.
While it is agreed that the stress response does not make us ready for instant action, it sure makes way for what
is referred to as short-term stress response, famously called the fight-or- flight response.
This mechanism clearly involves a rapid switch of priorities — both for long-term and short-term survival.
It also reflects our biological response. Because, when stress responses are channeled to systems that might need
to manage immediate challenges, they also make you run, or stand and fight.
In situations such as these, your body will need extra energy and quickness of both thought and action — to
operate and/or react.
How Stress Affects a Person – The Basics
Most of the biological changes that accompany the stress response are designed to mobilize the body’s fuel
reserves — to convert them into a form suitable for immediate use. This also extends to processes that provide
fuel, together with the extra oxygen required to burn it, and also the organs most likely to need it — the
brain and key muscles.
When we are under stress, this operation takes place at the expense of other biological systems such as growth and
reproduction which, though essential, in the longer term, are not essential for immediate survival. For instance,
the hormonal systems that regulate growth and reproduction are plumbed into the stress response and are profoundly
influenced by it.
Prolonged stress, for instance, hampers the secretion of the growth hormone and also the sex hormones. To put it
caustically, there is no use for libido if you are attacked, or intimidated by an gun-wielding terrorist!
Stress “acts” as a mediator for one part of the nervous apparatus — called the sympathetic nervous
system — which deals with the body’s housekeeping functions under normal conditions. It is, therefore,
well placed for rapidly re-adjusting our priorities.
What Happens During Stress
Your pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase — to help boost the supply of available energy.
Think of an idiom — the pounding heart. Besides beating faster under stress, the heart now pumps a greater
quantity of blood with each beat.
The bronchial tubes also dilate to facilitate the passage for more air with each breath. The blood vessels supplying
the muscles expand just as well. The palms of the hands and the soles of the feet begin to perspire, mainly because
a damp surface provides a much better grip of things.
Behavioral researchers say that our stress response evolved in our forbears — to help them manage in a world
Other events are also as just eventful. As the pupils of your eyes now dilate to let in more light and improve your
vision, your mental alertness and reaction times are also speeded up.
However, when things go far too much beyond one’s control, the situation becomes quite terrifying for the
other part of the nervous system — the parasympathetic mechanism. This leads to involuntary urination and also
Damaging yourself in this way might be messy, but having an empty bladder and bowel could often be more than helpful
when things get frantic! Jokes apart, relieving oneself, therefore, makes us not only lighter and also less “tempting” to
a prospective “marauder” — or, any stress-related event, or episode.
It may be mentioned, again, that, in a stressful situation, biological functions not vital for short-term survival
are closed down. When this happens, long-term energy reserves in the form of stored fat are broken down into fatty
acids and also glycerol which can be metabolized straight away.
In the meanwhile, carbohydrates stored in the liver are mobilized and converted into glucose, just as much as blood
is shunted away from the extremities towards the heart, muscles, and brain.
It is at this stage that the peripheral blood vessels constrict — you get cold hands and feet. “Cold
feet,” a famed literary _expression, is a reaction that takes place in anticipation of an unpleasant event.
It is a typical stress response. This, in effect, leads to the shut down of energy-consuming processes, which also
includes the production of saliva. You get that typical feeling of dry mouth, loss of appetite, and agitated bowels.
It is not amusing to know that the use of a physiological response to assess a person’s mental state was effectively
used as an early version of the polygraph, and it was, or is, just as accurate. Such is its physiological theme — which
is also a classical symptom of short-term stress response.
It does not take a genius to tell that when someone “gets the wind up,” they are displaying the physiological
effects of sympathetic nervous system arousal.
Good and Bad
When you measure stress response in terms of aiding survival in a dangerous world, it makes sense to think of it
as a good thing. Simple reason — a physiologically aroused organism is better able to deal with life-or-death
situations. What’s more, the stress response, in this case, is entirely normal. We have evolved to respond
to stressors in this manner. Also, there is nothing unusual or weird about finding threats to our health and well-being
unpleasant and, therefore, seeking to avoid them.
However, it is a totally different thing if stress is triggered several times a day, under unusual circumstances,
or for prolonged period. This can lead to not just adjustment difficulties, but also health disorders.
It also goes without saying that stress has both psychological outcomes as well as psychological causes. It changes
the way we perceive the world. It also affects our senses, memory, judgment, and behavior.
To illustrate the point:
Look at the way in which our nervous system processes sensory information. This is modified by the stress hormone,
cortisol. A high cortisol level is a characteristic feature of stress, accompanied by a reduction in sensory sharpness,
or the ability to detect very weak stimuli, and an accompanying improvement in sensory discrimination.
The latter, as you know, enables us to make finer distinctions between disparate stimuli. While all our senses,
including taste, smell, hearing, and balance, are affected, someone with high cortisol levels, for instance, will
not be able to decipher the presence of a weak resonance, but they will be able to tell two somewhat different sounds
apart because of the heightened state of sensitivity aroused by stress.
What Is As It Is
Whatever the nature of our evolutionary origins, a readjustment in our sensory abilities makes good biological sense.
Flashback: When confronted by a wild animal or hostile adversary, our Stone Age forbears’ chances of survival,
for instance, would only have improved if their senses were optimized for dealing with the immediate threat, or ignoring
anything that was not pertinent.
What does this signify? To be able to make fine discriminations between relatively intense stimuli rather than detecting
the presence of very faint stimuli or signal, which we are now prone to do — but not always! It is also a signal
that tells us what-is of a stressful situation as-it-is.
It is established that a hormone released during the stress response — noradrenalin — enhances the signal-processing
capability of our sensory system.
To cut a long story short — the stress response originates in and is coordinated by the brain. Long before
a stress response takes place the organism, however, must first perceive a threat to its well-being. This may involve
all manner of conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs, memories, and emotions.
It must also be remembered that many parts of the brain play a major role in processing all this information. This
includes the cerebral cortex and other higher centers of the brain. Interestingly, conscious thought may not be just
as involved when all this happens.
When your brain decides — consciously or unconsciously — that all is not well, the hypothalamus is activated.
The hypothalamus is the region of the forebrain, and the source of many of the primary electrical and chemical signals
which trigger the complete stress response in our body. The hypothalamus also regulates functions such as eating,
drinking, and sensual pleasures.
When stress activity is evidenced, the reticular activating system, or our network of cells, will also be boosting
your general level of arousal and awareness — so as to make you more responsive to signals from your sensory
organs and less receptive to information that is of no immediate relevance. Example: minor pains, or bodily sensations.
So, there you are! When a disaster is about to happen, an itchy or a running nose would not be able to disturb or
distract your attention!
Two main biological systems are involved in the conduction of the stress response. They are the sympathetic nervous
system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system. The sympathetic system links the brain to the internal organs.
It also carries the maintenance messages needed to regulate essential functions such as breathing, heart rate, and
digestion. The sympathetic nervous system essentially regulates the unconscious aspects of our basic bodily functions.
However, in a stressful situation, it becomes the chief negotiator of the body’s immediate alarm reaction — which,
as already cited, is called the fight-or-flight response.
In the initial phase of a stress response the hypothalamus, which we touched upon earlier, stimulates the nerve
endings in the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands — this causes them to release the two hormones,
noradrenalin and adrenalin.
For instance, a mildly stressful activity, such as public speaking, may generally bring forth a fifty percent spike
in the amount of noradrenalin.
The inference is obvious — people suffering from chronic stress, or anxiety, may register persistently raised
levels of both adrenalin and noradrenalin.
Stress in Daily Life
Just take a look around, including you — if that’s the case! One of ten people is over-stressed at any
given moment in time. Stress is not only physical and mental. It causes tangible chemical changes in the brain. These
changes can manipulate the state of your health and well-being
If stress indicates any change in your normal routine or health, it also warns us before bad things happen. Likewise,
it can indicate good and happy things, or tidings. The anticipation of getting a raise or promotion is stressful;
so also being fired from your job.
Needless to say, speculative changes can bring much stress as real changes. Contemplation and expectation about
whether or not you will get that new project is stressful. The same holds good when you are offered a new position,
Women, for instance, are predominantly vulnerable to stress caused by hormonal changes. Stress occurs during puberty,
menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause, owing to fluctuation in hormone levels.
We are also prone to both emotional and physical changes in our day-to-day life. This also includes illnesses and
environmental elements — heat, cold, or altitude, pollutants and toxins. Besides this, some of us have a habit
of pushing our body too hard at work, or at play, and for whatever reason. This has the potential to drain our body
of the energy it needs to restore itself. The result is amplified stress!
Stress is suggested to be one of the contributing factors for as varied disorders as backaches and insomnia, cancer
and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It can also lead to the absence of menstruation and abnormal bleeding in women.
Besides being evidenced that hormonal imbalances caused by stress may propagate symptoms of fibroid tumors and endometriosis,
stress is also implicated in fertility problems in couples.
In a nutshell, heart disease, a very likely stress-related affection, is one of the leading causes of death on a
global scale. Reason: high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart palpitations, and stroke are suggested to be stress-related
While some women experience changes in their sexuality and bump into various sexual dysfunctions such as loss of
desire and vaginal dryness because of stress, there are many others in either sex who often feel the effects of stress — these
include fatigue, various aches and pains, headaches, and migraines, lack of sexual yearning, or emotional disorders
such as anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. This is not all. Stress can cause gastrointestinal disorders
including ulcers, lower abdominal cramps, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), to mention a few.
It is also not infrequent for people with severe stress to be subject to frequent colds and infections, thanks to
reduced immune system reaction time, or function. As a matter of fact, stress can set off skin conditions such as
itching and rashes, including eczema.
Coping with Stress — Successfully
No one is free from stress. The more our inability to deal with stress, the worse it is! It is, therefore, not without
reason that how we manage stress is related to various efforts being used to control and/or reduce it. This can be
fine-tuned to suit individual needs, and with good effect.
Experts suggest the following strategies to be useful to keep the stress wolf from the door. You could use it as
a base and/or adapt it differently, if you so wish. Either way, you will be able to deal with stress better, and
more effectively —
- A positive attitude, or thinking, is a must. Try to develop it.
- De-focus the negative, and try to focus on positive thoughts.
- Reduce negative feelings as far as possible.
- Do not crib. Instead, try to bring in some enjoyment in your activity, or take a break.
- Exercise regularly. Exercise, or physical activity, is one of the best remedies available to reduce stress.
- Nutrition is also just as important as exercise. Eat a well-balanced diet. Also, take an appropriate vitamin-mineral
supplement in consultation with a therapist. The mineral, magnesium, for instance, is evidenced to be one of the
most useful key nutrients in stress-related problems.
- Interact socially with people. Remember — when you are extremely stressed out, you will feel quite relaxed
talking to loved ones and/or friends.
- Get in touch with people you know or don’t know, and exchange a smile. A smile takes you a mile!
- Cherish yourself, entertain yourself, seek yourself, and also others. Take time for personal interests and hobbies.
Also, for your family.
- Practice relaxation/meditation techniques. Listen to soft, soulful music.
- Practice yoga, t’ai chi, or qigong.
- Try to know yourself. Only then you will know the “Real” You.
- Read a funny book. Or, watch a slap-stick comedy — may be, Laurel &Hardy or Charlie Chaplin. Try to
laugh and laugh your stresses out!
Speak to your doctor, counselor, or psychiatrist, if things go out of control, or you are just not able to bring
balance to your life with lifestyle changes and/or modifications.